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Hepatitis A

Introduction

[Original article on NHS Choices website]

Hepatitis A is a type of viral liver infection uncommon in England but widespread in other parts of the world such as Africa and India.

Initial symptoms of hepatitis A are similar to flu and include:

  • low grade fever – usually no higher than 39.5C (103.1F)
  • joint pain
  • feeling and being sick

This may then be followed by symptoms related to the liver becoming infected, such as:

  • yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
    passing very dark coloured urine and
  • pale faeces (stools or ‘poo’)
  • abdominal pain
  • itchy skin

Symptoms usually clear up within two months, although occasionally last up to six months. Older adults tend to have more severe symptoms.

In most cases the liver will make a full recovery.
 
Read more about symptoms of hepatitis A.

Treating hepatitis A

There is no cure for hepatitis A so treatment involves making a person feel as comfortable as possible until the infection clears up.

This involves:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • using paracetamol to relieve pain - always make sure you never exceed the recommended dose as this could further damage your liver
  • taking a type of medication called an antiemetic to help with the symptoms of feeling sick (nausea) and being sick (vomiting)

Read more about treating hepatitis A.

What causes hepatitis A?

Hepatitis A is caused by the hepatitis A virus.

The virus is most commonly spread through what is known as the ‘faecal-oral’ route.  This is when you put something in your mouth that has been contaminated by the faeces (stools) of someone with hepatitis A.

Eating foods that have been contaminated with raw sewage such as shellfish can also lead you to become infected, as can drinking contaminated water.

Less commonly, hepatitis A can be spread through:

  • sharing a needle with an infected person to inject drugs
  • during sex; particularly anal sex

The condition can also spread through close personal contact in ‘closed environments’ such as student halls, boarding schools and army barracks.

Read more about the causes of hepatitis A.

Who is affected

Hepatitis A is widespread in parts of the world that are poor, over-crowded and have limited access to sanitation and clean water, such as:

  • Africa
  • India
  • Pakistan
  • some parts of the Middle East and South America

Hepatitis A is much less common in Western countries. There were only 367 reported cases of hepatitis A infection in England and Wales during 2010; it is unclear how many of these infections were actually caught abroad.

Hepatitis A is most common in young children but often goes undetected as it tends not to cause any symptoms in this age group.

Others with an increased risk of catching hepatitis A include:

  • men who have sex with men
  • people who regularly inject drugs
  • sewage workers
  • people who travel to and /or work in less developed countries

Vaccination may be recommended for high-risk groups.

Vaccination

There is an effective vaccine that protects against hepatitis A. Read more about the hepatitis A vaccine and who should have it.

Preventing the spread of infection

If you are diagnosed with hepatitis A it is important anyone you could have infected is tested for the condition.

An infection can often be prevented if it is treated within two weeks of a person becoming exposed to the hepatitis A virus.

Testing may be recommended for:

  • people who live with you
  • people you have recently prepared food for
  • any person you have had sex with

It is also important to take some basic precautions in terms of hygiene such as washing your hands after going to the toilet and before preparing food.

Read more about preventing hepatitis A.

Complications

In most people the infection will pass without causing any long-term problems. And once the infection passes you normally develop life-long immunity against the hepatitis A virus.

Complications tend to only occur in people with pre-existing liver disease and /or elderly people, with the most serious being liver failure (where the liver loses most or all of its functions).

Once liver failure has occurred, it is usually possible to sustain life for several years using medication. However, a liver transplant is currently the only option for curing liver failure.

Read more about the complications of hepatitis A.

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